What’s in a name? Is a name just an arbitrary collection of letters, a pragmatic tool for distinguishing one thing from another? Or do names run deeper, capturing something essential about the thing named? Do names matter?
Does it make a difference if we’re talking about God’s name?
That’s the question R. Kendall Soulen raises at the beginning of his book The Divine Name(s) and the Holy Trinity: Distinguishing the Voices. Before he spends an entire book looking at God’s name in the Bible, Soulen wants to know if names even matter all that much.
Can we just call God whatever we want?
The Twofold Nature of a Name
Before diving into that question, Soulen directs our attention to the fact that names are somewhat complex things. From one perspective, they seem somewhat trivial. But considered more closely, a name takes on a surprising level of significance.
Soulen cites a passage from Goethe to capture the common perspective that names are fairly irrelevant; it’s the reality behind the name that matters.
Name it then as you will!
Name it Change! Heart! Love! God!
I have no name for it.
Feeling is everything;
The name is just Noise and Smoke.
But then he points out that even Goethe was inconsistent on this point. He thought that at least one name was more significant. Here is Goethe complaining elsewhere about someone had used his own name.
“It really was not very nice that he let himself make a joke with my name. For a person’s proper name is not like a cape that merely hangs about him, and that one can just tug about this ay and that, but it’s like perfectly fitting clothes, or better like a person’s very skin, which one can’t scrape or mist rate without inuring the person himself.”
So Soulen concludes that names seem to function at two very different levels:
“A name, it seems, is like a Möbius strip, a ring with two sides but–mysteriously–only one surface. Names are light and transparent on one side, heavy and opaque on the other, but each side leads endlessly to the other. Mere scraps of sound, the plaything of punsters, names still share somehow in the reality of what they signify.”
So a name isn’t just “noise and smoke.” Names have depth, significance. Even if we don’t think that names convey some kind of magical power over the thing named, like in many fantasy novels, a name is still more than just a random collection of letters.
The Name of God
But what about God’s name? What can it possibly mean to speak the name of the triune God of the Bible? Wouldn’t such a name far outstrip the power of human speech? But for the grace of God, yes.
“No generic label is adequate to God. ‘I am who I am!’ But humans have no language except generic language, a net of words too coarse to catch the glorious uniqueness of even mundane things, such as the shape of a tree leaf or the smell of lilac in spring. Therefore, no human speech is adequate to convey the uniqueness of God. Except…God can take what is inadequate in itself and speak through it, thereby making it proportional to God, even in the midst of its still greater disproportion….Then, but only then, the vain, upwardly rising sparks of human language can become descending tongues of flame.”
So God’s name is an act of grace, a gift that he has given us as a way for us to speak about him and to him. God has a name because he named himself, and he did so for us. Not a random collection of letters, God’s name is a sacrament, an act in which God claims some creaturely reality and uses it for his purposes. In this case, he claims our speech as an audible sacrament.
“The name of God is not magic, any more than is baptism or the laying on of hands. But neither is the name of God just an arbitrary tag or empty label. Ordinary and awesome at once, the name of God is something like an audible sacrament. In the name, the bearer of the name is present.”
The name of God as an audible sacrament. I like it.